American Views Abroad

Tuesday, June 26, 2007
A question often asked by Americans at home is if given the opportunity, would the American abroad move back to the US anytime soon. Once the language and cultural hurdles have been overcome, would you rather live here or there? Having come to terms with another kind of freedom --- the freedom to move around without four wheels, the freedom to leave the house and walk to a local newspaper or coffee shop, the freedom to take very good, reliable public transportation and to live in a very pleasant area with good cultural offerings---has an appeal that grows on you. It's startling back in the US, once outside of big cities, how old social study lessons learned years ago come to mind. We were taught the divisions in US society: city life vs suburban life vs rural life. There is such an either/or factor in all this. Either you live in a city and have, most likely, cramped quarters and high rents or you escape to the suburbs or you hunker down in the rural life. All three have very positive aspects. The countryside can be lovely, depending on where you are. Home and gardens in the suburbs can be far larger than elsewhere. Life can certainly be more convenient when you go from house to garage to car to drive-in banks and huge supermarkets. Somehow, though, it just doesn't have the same appeal anymore as deciding impulsively to enjoy the weather and walk somewhere to do something. How about biking to school instead of being forced to work around the school bus schedule or forced to work out plans to pick up the kids? It certainly makes them far more independent. Recently, I had a conversation with a German woman who works in a hospital program for the severely obese, a growing group over here unfortunately. She was shocked to hear that often in the US you have to get in a car and drive somewhere to go out for your 10,000 steps a day. For the first time she was able to understand what she read or heard at various courses. She found it very off-putting and counterproductive to get in a car first before getting some more-or-less natural exercise, like walking.

A more thorough way of looking at the factors that make a city great along with links is at Interestingly, Munich actually came in number one and Hamburg number eighteen of this survey of the world’s top twenty cities.

Monday, June 18, 2007
Six degrees of separation peel away in the heat of three weeks back in the US. Most noticeable is winning back a more local accent, a less reserved way of dressing, the sudden awareness of paying taxes with every purchase --- stupidly forgot the pocket calculator to figure out tips, taxes, discounts --- I do miss the European convenience of having one simple end price for things. Everyone knows there is a VAT on most items here but since taxes, like death, is a natural part of life why the confrontation with taxes added even for something small like a bottle of water and a magazine? Does the constant hammering away at how much the government takes out do more harm than good? After all, how many citizens have a clue what that tax money is being spent on? The sheer amount of food in restaurants seems to have peeked and potatoes at breakfast can be replaced by fresh fruit. Whole foods have been discovered along with greater variety in vegetables and fruit. Recycling is practiced, windmills were sighted, bags are being brought back for reuse in supermarkets, trends long practiced in parts of Europe have reached parts of America. Malls are getting a European touch, as one friend put it --- another friend called it Disney architecture, with shops not under one roof, but more like a town center with out-door dining areas. A Wal-Mart in West Chester, PA had to put up a silo by degree of the town council so suburban sprawl can be reminded of its former farming history. In Philadelphia groups of concerned citizens managed to save two very unique old buildings from being torn down and Pittsburgh has reinvented itself from a steel polluted city to a splendid place to visit.

Yet, something was amiss. There was a tension in the air and not just from electrical storms the humid weather brought in. People actually wanted to talk to me, an American abroad, about any number of topics, health care being a big favorite, along with questions about Germany and, more particularly, if it has regained its confidence after the fiasco of WW II. Gingerly, the question was posed how the German on the street views the current US administration. They would have preferred another answer, but were realistic at the prospect that no, it is definitely not viewed with anything less than disgust. Themes hardly ever mentioned were the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, except for bitter side remarks or unmistakable body language. I learned quickly that mentioning the B or C name brought shudders, grimaces, the thumbs down sign, looks of shock on people's faces. There was, however, one person, whom I sat next to at a wedding dinner, who announced he voted for B both times. He considers him to be defending western civilization, particularly in Guantanamo where he was quick to point out a leading top terrorist is confined. I countered with how I certainly did not vote for him and how having innocent people locked up for what can be eternity without charges and trials is in no way defending our values. The political part of our conversation ended there, but I wonder, since he confided he enjoyed talking to me at the end of the three days of wedding celebrations, just how much dialogue is going on there about these themes. Are the two sides so entrenched that dialogue has been replaced with a huge white elephant sitting in the middle of society sucking up all the oxygen?

The big theme that everyone was talking about was the immigration bill that failed to pass. I saw it take over a party in Cincinnati one weekend and the following Sunday, in Pittsburgh, I noticed an editorial in one of the city's newspapers posing the question, why when the Pittsburgh area has no problems at all with immigration and hardly any immigrants working there, are people so worked up over this bill and amnesty for immigrants who may have spent over a decade living and working in the US. The Republican base managed to stir up enough frenzy about this bill to doom it. One side is vehement about having its word heard. The other side, equally vehement in feelings, seems reluctant to move on to any kind of open protest.

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